Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I am the Gate/I am the Good Shepherd

The scripture referred to is John 10:1-16.

My hometown of St. Louis is called the Gateway to the West. That's because in the opening of the American West, St. Louis was often the starting point for many pioneers. But the word "gateway" bothers me. A gate is usually an entrance to an enclosure of some sort. You'll notice that in the Bible, the gate of a city was an important place where the town elders met and business was transacted. In modern parlance, a gate is where tickets to an event are taken. A gate is a place where people or things are screened and either admitted or not. There was no fence around the West. You could enter it from north or south of St. Louis. So how was it a gateway?

Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition to explore the West from St. Louis, as did many explorers, trappers and settlers after them. The main reason for this was that St. Louis was considered the Last Eastern City. To be sure there were settlements and forts further west, but, with its situation on the Mississippi River making it a transportation hub and its manufacturing base, St. Louis was the only place to get fully supplied and provisioned before reaching San Francisco. It wasn't the gateway into the West as much as out of the East and civilization. Were it the Middle Ages, maps of the land beyond St. Louis might well have borne the legend "Here be Dragons!"

A gate or door is an entrance, a point of transition from one place to another. On one side is (presumably) potential danger and on the other side safety. On one side an indifferent or even hostile world, on the other acceptance, love, comfort and maybe home. A door or gate is important, offering protection from prying eyes and from predators. On the other hand, one should not spend all of one's time indoors. A larger world exists on the other side, offering nature, society, variety, abundance. You need both in your life, exposure to the world and to other people and experiences as well as the care and security of the community, the workplace, and the home. You need to be able to go in and out.    

In John 10, Jesus makes 2 "I AM" statements. The first, found in John 10:7, is "I am the gate for the sheep." The second, found in John 10:11, is "I am the good shepherd." The 2 are related. In a way, the 2 are the same.

A good shepherd was the gate to the sheepfold. That is, he knelt at the entrance to the sheepfold, stopped each sheep with his crook and inspected every one of them as it came in. He would examine a cut or a sore, or get a stone out of its hoof if it were limping, or just give the sheep first aid before letting it enter the sheepfold proper. Often a shepherd would then sleep across the entrance to the sheepfold, making himself literally the gate or door to it. He was saying, in effect, "The only way to get at them is through me!"

Jesus is the entrance to the sheepfold. Through him we enter the church, the kingdom of God, the Body of Christ. He examines, repairs and heals us so we are fit to enter. And he protects his sheep, keeping them safe so we can get rest and refreshment there.

So, returning to the metaphor of the gate, the sheep, coming back at the end of the day, could expect care and safety as they entered the sheepfold through the loving hands and eyes of the shepherd. And the next morning, they would go out again into the world to find food and drink.

And so Jesus switches the metaphor slightly to "I am the good shepherd." Jesus emphasizes a few things with this metaphor. First and most obviously, the shepherd leads the sheep.  A shepherd had to know where there was good pasture for the sheep. He had to realize when an area was picked over and it was time to move on. He had to consider terrain and predator habitats and shade and sources of clean water and the best way to approach them.

In the same way, we trust Jesus as our shepherd to lead us to where there is spiritual sustenance. Our responsibility is to follow. Jesus says his sheep know his voice. There were lots of sheep in the countryside. In a very spacious grazing area, more than one flock might be in the same place. But the sheep knew the voice of their particular shepherd. When he called, they would separate themselves from the sheep of other flocks and follow, rather like ducklings following their mother.

Jesus says he calls his sheep by name. I must confess I wouldn't be able to tell one sheep from another. But someone who spends all his time with animals learns to tell them apart, notes their different markings, temperaments and personalities and often gives them names. We know from Nathan's parable of the poor man's lamb that shepherds could come to care for their sheep almost as if they were pets. Jesus cares for his sheep.

And this is what differentiates him from the hired hand. This is what elevates him from just any shepherd to the good shepherd. He is emotionally invested in the sheep. He will defend them from the thieves and robbers, who wish to exploit the sheep. He will fight off the wolves who come to destroy and devour the sheep, even at the cost of his life. It might sound odd to us, a man risking or even losing his life for a bunch of animals. Jesus' audience would know, though, that the sheep were a shepherd's livelihood, what supports him and his family. He would be as likely to risk his life fighting robbers as a shop owner would today.

But here is where the metaphor breaks down, as metaphors inevitably do. Jesus does not die for us for our meat or our wool or our monetary value. He emphasizes the relationship of the shepherd and the sheep throughout this passage. Later in John, we are told that Jesus was laying down his life for his friends. Jesus is talking about how he will lay down his life for others because he cares about them. He is contrasting his relationship with God's people to those who do not have their best interests in mind.

The problem of false and harmful leaders is found throughout scripture. Jeremiah and Zechariah condemn false shepherds; Jesus speaks of religious leaders who devour widow's houses; Paul's letters, the Book of Revelation, and the Didache, a very early church manual, all address the problem of false prophets and apostles. The problem is that people of faith are by definition folks who are trusting. Con men know this and often target them as easy marks. And what is worse is when the con man becomes a religious leader.

Greed is, of course, a very common motive. Lust is a very close second. The marks of a cult leader are that, in addition to exalting himself to a very high position of authority, as messiah or even god, and isolating his flock from other influences, he usually lives a very wealthy lifestyle, and uses his position to procure sex from his pick of his female followers. As Paul says, their god is their belly, that is, their appetites. And sadly, people let themselves be exploited. They buy into their leader's excuses that he deserves these indulgences or that the rules that bind others do not apply to them. That's why Jesus said, "by their fruit you shall know them" and why Paul and others emphasized the importance of humble Christian behavior on the part of leaders in the church. Paul's call to imitate him is another good test. A false leader won't let his flock imitate his behavior; only he gets to be act that way.      

This is not to say that a good spiritual leader is perfect. We are sinners too. But there is a difference between someone who is actually trying to follow Jesus and who stumbles at times and one who is intentionally abusing his position for his own gain. And then there are those seduced by the power and privileges that can go with such a position. The turning point comes when they realize that they love the power and perks and continue to indulge themselves or when they realize that they can get away with a lot and do so.

In Luke 12, Jesus talked of the slave who is entrusted with managing his master's estate while he is away. Among his duties is feeding and taking care of his fellow slaves. "Blessed is the slave whom the master finds at work when he returns," Jesus says. Jesus even says earlier of such a master, who finds his slaves alert and ready, "I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them!" Jesus is obviously describing himself.

But, asks Jesus, what if the slave thinks that his master has been delayed and so begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat, drink and get drunk. Things will go very badly for that slave when his master returns unexpectedly. Jesus said, "To whom much is given, much will be required." James, Jesus' brother, similarly says that teachers (and, I assume, all other leaders) will be judged by a stricter standard.

And that standard is Jesus, the good shepherd, who does not exploit his sheep but who is willing to die for them. He is the servant-leader, the one who is slave of all, who came not to be served but to serve. The perfect illustration of that is what he did before the last supper. Jesus stripped, tied a towel around his waist and began to wash his disciples filthy feet and then dry them, the lowest task a slave performs. After he was done, he said, "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you, too, ought to wash one another's feet." Just like a shepherd, taking care of his sheep's feet.        

The best way to live the Christian life is to regard Jesus as our chief shepherd, regardless of whom we have as our temporary and assistant shepherd. And we leaders should remember that we are always his assistants and we are always temporary. Only Jesus is the eternal shepherd. Only he is the gate to security and good pasture and healing. And only he is the one who comes that we might have life and have it abundantly.

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